Bills join DSS agencies


Sen. Bill Cook


By Jon Hawley
Staff Writer

Saturday, May 20, 2017

State lawmakers are proposing to replace county departments of social services with new regional entities, a move that would reshape how the state provides child protective services and other programs that protect North Carolina's most vulnerable residents.

Local DSS directors, however, are leery of the idea, warning it could be a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn't improve services.

Under proposals before both the state House and Senate, county departments of social services would be merged into 30 or fewer regional entities by Jan. 1, 2022. In addition to standalone House and Senate bills, the proposal is included in the Senate version of next year’s proposed state budget.

Leading up to 2022, the legislation requires the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services and a working group of state and local officials to plan how to implement the merger. The group would report back to the General Assembly before April 1, 2019, and the merger wouldn't happen without another act of the General Assembly.

Both state Sens. Bill Cook, R-Beaufort, and Sen. Erica Smith-Ingram, D-Northampton, expressed support for the legislation last week.

Cook said the legislation — House Bill 608 and State Bill 594 — is needed to “overhaul” social services in the state after numerous reviews found failures in child services.

“In a 2015 federal review of the state's child welfare system, North Carolina failed all 14 criteria, even the basic safety of the children in the system,” Cook said in an email. “The NC child welfare system also failed a state review, auditor's review, legislative review and an independent review …. We have 100 counties delivering services 100 different ways.”

Cook further claimed that a regional system of delivering social services would ease workloads on “overwhelmed” case managers, lead to the sharing of best practices and improve response times to crises.

Smith-Ingram, D-Northampton, said she also supported the measure as effort to improve child services, citing the same report that Cook mentioned. She said the state needs to make child services more accountable and accessible. She declined to discuss specific issues found at local DSS offices, but said she learned of an “extreme issue” in one of the counties she represents.

In supporting the legislation, she said she wanted to ensure rural areas had a “seat at the table” in the discussions.

Local officials remain skeptical or opposed to the legislation, however.

Pasquotank County Attorney Mike Cox reported to commissioners last week that the county is lobbying against the bill.

“I don't think any time you centralize government at this level, it's going to be a good thing for the county,” Cox said.

Alluding to the merger of regional mental health agencies that created Trillium Health Resources, he also commented, “You create these entities like mental health and you get some big salaries and less services, and there's big concerns about that.”

Pasquotank DSS Director Melissa Stokely said in an email Thursday that the legislation “leaves too many unanswered questions at this point.” Though not directly taking a position on the proposal, she shared a statement from the N.C. Association of County Directors of Social Services in opposition to the legislation.

“Based on our experience and the experience of other states, we believe that regionalization will further fragment the system, weaken the safety net in each county, and place children and families at unnecessary risk,” the statement reads.

While Perquimans County commissioners haven't taken a formal position on DSS regionalization, Perquimans County Manager Frank Heath said some do have concerns about merging DSS offices, based on how the merger of mental health agencies has gone.

“In that case we don’t have control,” Heath said. “I think the feeling is social services probably needs to be maintained on the county level.”

Like Stokely, Chowan County DSS Director Letecia Loadholt said “there are lots of unanswered questions” about regionalizing social services — “especially in rural areas.”

Currituck DSS Director Kathy Romm said while she’s opposed to the legislation, she is glad it includes a working group to study the “potentially extremely complex” merger of DSS offices. It's unclear how regional entities would affect county DSS offices’ federal, state and local funding, and there are also lots of logistical and personnel questions, she said.

Romm also said that DSS offices do need to improve, and that the differences between local funding levels can have a big impact on services and retaining good employees. But she said she doesn’t see how regionalization will fix anything.

“I do not see how that improves the outcome we agree with the state we need,” she said.

Camden DSS Director Craig Patterson said that county DSS offices are working to improve in response to the federal review. But he also noted that “no state passes” that review. Notably, the review evaluates North Carolina as a whole, not individual county DSS offices.

Patterson also said that some counties' DSS offices provide unique services to meet special local needs. It's not clear those services would continue under a system of regional entities, he said.

Though the regionalization bill enjoys support from both of the region’s senators, area House members take different positions. State Rep. Howard Hunter III, D-Hertford, opposes merging DSS offices.

“I will not support regionalization,” he said in an email. “Local control is better. It's a horrible bill.”

State Rep. Bob Steinburg, R-Chowan, said he’s heard local concerns about merging DSS offices, and all the issues that could create, such as potential loss of employment or people having to travel further for services.

However, he noted the working group is essentially a study committee, and the working group might find regionalization is a bad idea. He said he would consider regionalization, but only if it improves the vital services that are a “lifeline” for many people. 

Perquimans Weekly Editor Peter Williams and Chowan Herald Editor Miles Layton contributed to this report.